COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: ‘we are good at surviving, but things are really tough’

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

On the 13th June I had a follow up conversation on how people are coping with the COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe. As with the previous discussion on April 23rd it was based on a compilation of insights and reflections from across our rural field sites – from Chikombedzi, to Masvingo district, Gutu, Matobo and Mvurwi. It was a long and fascinating call, and this blog offers only some highlights.

Compared to when we first talked, there are now more recorded cases in Zimbabwe (currently 356), although no more deaths (still at four recorded). The country is in ‘indefinite’ lockdown, but in Level 2 mode, which allows some more flexibility. However, things remain tough for all those in our study areas. Below are some themes that emerged from the discussion:

Restricted movement

Movement restrictions are very strict. You have to get a permit to travel, and it can take days for these to be issued. The police are everywhere, and the army. They will stop you at roadblocks and turn you back if you don’t have the paperwork. It’s a real challenge as farmers need to get to town to sell things or buy inputs. It’s really impossible. Shops are now open longer, but if you cannot travel, what can you do? It’s even difficult to get to hospital or the clinic. Those with conditions like HIV/AIDS or TB are suffering as they are not getting the medicines on time. If there’s a complication with a pregnancy there’s nothing you can do. You have to rely on local herbalists and others. The same is for livestock – they are dying of diseases as we can’t travel to town to get the dip chemicals or treatments. Movement is essential for life. People will always find a way though. They have to in order to survive. We have had 20 or more years of practice of living under hardship, we are good at surviving, but things are really tough.

We rely on the truckers

For supplies, we now rely on the truckers. Traders are not allowed to go to South Africa anymore (although some sneak through unregulated border crossings), and the buses that used to bring things from down South are not moving. So the truckers who are allowed to move bring things. It’s illegal, but there is a well-established network these days. And those who used to buy and sell from South Africa have set up tuck-shops in the locations (high density suburbs in town) and in the rural areas, and things are supplied. You can buy agri-inputs, groceries, phone credit, and much more. But it’s expensive. They are buying in Rand, and the Zimbabwe dollar is fast losing strength. The black market rate is three times the official rate, so buying goods these days is seriously expensive.

Remittances are no longer coming

People used to rely a lot on remittances. Either in kind – usually sent by bus from South Africa – or in cash – through transfer services like Mukuru, World Remit or Western Union. But relatives outside the country – even in the UK – have lost their jobs. They no longer send remittances. This is a big problem as these funds used to pay for labour or for agricultural inputs, or for fees or groceries. It’s a big gap. For example, the tobacco harvest in Mvurwi is being delayed as there’s no money to pay for labour.

We are all vendors now

To survive, everyone must become a vendor. It seems something is being sold from every house in the location, and even in the rural areas too. People stock some small things and sell. Some deal in groceries, others sell farm or garden produce (vegetables, peanut butter etc.), others do sewing and repairs, others sell clothes. There are so many shebeens (informal drinking places), and beer brewing is a massive business particularly in the locations. There are hair and beauty salons – all informal – in people’s houses, along with electrical repair shops, tailors – you name it, you can find it. It’s all illegal and the police can always close things down, so people wait until they knock off. It’s the evenings when there is so much activity. Some sell from their cars, as they can quickly move if the police come. Others use wheelbarrows, push carts, large dishes. Markets are everywhere, despite the older ones being closed. The government has destroyed the old informal markets and is building new ones, but these are not complete, so people must improvise. Some have even started online trading, but this is only feasible in the towns, given the cost of (phone) bundles. The action is all in the locations, and farmers must link with relatives and others there. In town, some buildings are registered for trade, and people can then set up tables there, but they will pay the tax. The government doesn’t like the informal traders and is trying to formalise everything. Although they are building new hygienic structures for people to trade from, much of this is just to control people and collect taxes. Right now, we need to live.

Everyone is a gardener

Gardening is essential too. Every bit of ground near people’s houses is now a garden. It’s vital to stay alive, and with the markets closed it’s difficult to buy things. You have to grow your own. It’s good as people stay healthy, and some can also sell as part of vending from their homes. In an area you know who has what. Wider markets are coming back too, as schools, universities and other institutions begin to open. The demand is not as it was, but there is business to be done if you are a farmer or gardener.

Restrictions on agricultural markets persist

Moving produce to markets is difficult. The police will stop you, ask for permits. It’s a total hassle. So some farmers will move early in the morning, offloading produce in the locations where others sell. Others move in the evening and sell from their pick-up trucks. There’s always a way, even if it’s more difficult. For more formal marketing there are so many regulations. For example in Mvurwi, people can come together and sell at a single point to a company representative who comes to the area. A farmer representative can travel with the crop to the auction floors, but the selling is not transparent. You cannot see how it’s weighed and graded because of the coronavirus restrictions, so farmers are easily ripped off. This is disastrous as these days payments are only in part in forex, so you don’t get much for your crop. Alternatively, you can take your tobacco to the auction floors yourself if you’ve got a truck, but you may have to queue for days, and they will not let you on the floor because of the virus. So there is always cheating, and you get a bad deal. Marketing for farmers is a big challenge due to COVID-19.

It’s better in the rural areas

There is massive urban to rural migration right now. Many people in town are really suffering. They have lost jobs, there’s no food, rents are getting hiked and there is huge inflation on everything. Some say it’s 700 percent! Many have come home to the rural areas. This is particularly those who were relying on informal activities, including vendors, sex workers and other informal jobs in town. The rural areas are now full of those coming back to their rural homes. Here rent is free, and you can grow food, even if only a small garden. And relatives know them, and will help out. It’s a much better situation. Some are wondering if they will ever go back to town.

Returnees from South Africa are feared and stigmatised

There are thousands coming back from other countries – mostly from South Africa, but also other countries in the region, such as Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania and so on. And also from the UK, Australia, parts of Asia. There are so many. People are saying why did you leave if you come back when things are tough out there? They left because of Zimbabwe’s problems, but now they’re running away from hunger and disease in South Africa. The rise in reported cases has almost all been from returnees from South Africa and other countries. They have lost jobs and have no means of survival, as the ‘social protection’ measures in those places do not cover migrants, especially if you don’t have the right papers. When they cross the border into Zimbabwe, they are supposed to be put in a quarantine centre, but some may escape. These places are not good, and if you don’t have the virus you might catch it there! People are complaining seriously about these centres, as they are not well run. If you escape the police can chase you, and now they are confiscating passports and ID cards. If you don’t have the virus after eight days you can be transferred to an isolation centre, which are better. Less like prison. You can even pay for something better, as hotels are being used. Or you are sometimes allowed to self-isolate at a rural home under the supervision of a kraalhead. Those returnees from South Africa are seen as diseased and dangerous in the villages. People run away from them. There is so much stigma and fear. Those who dodged the quarantine camps, perhaps coming over an illegal crossing, are sometimes smoked out by locals, and reported. People really fear the returnees. We see this unknown virus in them.

Community relations are getting strained

COVID-19 is really straining relations. Social gatherings are restricted, and you have to get a permit. You can have up to 50 people for a church service or a funeral for example. But people cannot travel far to weddings, funerals and so on, so families are not keeping in touch at these important moments. With returnees coming back, they may be hidden from others for fear of them being exposed. This is causing problems within villages, where everyone knows everyone. But there are ways of bringing people together too. There has been a big rise in savings clubs to assist with people buying groceries. People now realise that saving is important so as to cushion you from a shock like this that just comes from nowhere. There’s also been a growth of burial societies, as the main funeral companies are no longer working. So people do help each other out in the villages particularly, making the rural a better place to stay right now. There are also quite a few projects and forms of assistance, which seems to be more common in the rural areas. This can come from government – including the First Lady’s projects – or through churches, NGOs, even companies. But the lockdown is certainly causing many frustrations for sure. You can see this especially in the locations but also in the rural areas. People want to socialise; they want to go for a drink and meet people. So you see lots of people hanging around in the urban and rural townships, especially where there are illegal bottle stores and shebeens. Drugs are a problem too, and this is causing conflicts between people, and sometimes the outbreak of fights. The police will round people up, hand out fines, but people will not obey; they are frustrated with lockdown life.

Sharing information and countering fake news

There’s so much fake news circulating about COVID-19, especially on social media, WhatsApp groups and so on. Some are now saying that after so many months it doesn’t kill Africans. Some say that there is a cure already found. Others argue that it is all a plot by foreigners. Some of us look at the international media and know that these things are not true, but gossip and rumour travel fast, and it’s amazing what people believe! The government is publishing official information. They’ve printed booklets in all 16 local languages, and they also use radio, TV and the state newspapers. There are phone and text messages from the government too. And they publish the data by province each day, so you can find out how things are changing. The rise in cases from returnees especially from South Africa is certainly worrying people, and adding to the stigmatisation of those who come back. So yes people know it’s dangerous. They see it next door in South Africa. Relatives tell them how bad it is in the UK and Europe too. Although we haven’t seen deaths, we realise that controlling it is important, so overall people still back the government, as we don’t want it here like it is in South Africa.

Political tensions

We hear that there are some in power who are benefiting from tenders due to COVID-19. We know the chefs are corrupt. There are others profiting too, but that’s not bad. For example, there are business people who are making and selling PPE and sanitisers. There are lots of small COVID businesses around. Farmers are even buying this stuff, including face masks and sanitiser so they can move around and trade safely. Some shop owners are even buying temperature testing kits costing US$100 or more. Emergencies always provide opportunities for some. However, some of the police and security forces are taking advantage. There were rumours of mass mobilisation by the opposition recently, and then the road blocks became harsher. Some were targeted, and there was reportedly some violence in some places. We heard the news of the shocking attacks on MDC people too. We don’t know how bad things are elsewhere, as where we stay in the rural areas there is less conflict. This seems to be in Harare and places like that. But we can see the tensions and we see the results in the movement restrictions and the massive presence of security people everywhere. But the police were more heavy-handed in the earlier lockdown period, and it’s eased a bit now, although if you are found in the wrong place at the wrong time, you will be in big trouble. It is lockdown with force, but people must violate the rules because they are starving. They see the rationale for the lockdown, but they just cannot always comply.

Many thanks to all the research team from across Zimbabwe for continuing interviews and collecting local information on the COVID-19 situation (and for the photos from Mucheke). In a few weeks we will have a further update on this blog. In the next two weeks the blog series looking at what happened 20 years after land reform will conclude, wrapping up the five previous blog with two summary/synthesis pieces.

All photo credit: Ian Scoones and his team.